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The Russian election: What you need to know

Mikhail Bushuev
December 28, 2017

Vladimir Putin will win Russia's 2018 presidential election, there's no doubt about that. But the recently-kicked off campaign nonetheless has several points of interest. DW gives you an overview of the sideshows.

Vladimir Putin
Image: picture alliance/TASS/dpa/V. Prokofyev

There's no suspense in the air. Regarding the outcome of the Russian presidential election in March 2018, opinions are undivided despite the fact the campaign has only just begun. Twenty-three candidates, male and female, have submitted their papers to Russia's central election commission. However, only Vladimir Putin will prevail, the incumbent president who has been governing Russia in one role or another for 17 years. To be sure, this election has more to offer than just a result.

1. Putin: Who else?

The 65-year-old head of state, Vladimir Putin, waited for a long time until he announced he would again stand as a presidential candidate. According to some observers, Putin was toying with people's fears that the "father of the nation" might not run for the presidency again. Then came the move which had to be expected. Putin chose a symbolic venue to announce that he would run for the post: the legendary Russian GAZ car factory in Nizhny Novgorod, in front of workers who supported him when he said he'd like to throw his hat into the ring again.

Putin is not fond of conventional campaigning, including TV debates. He prefers to present himself as a savior of rare animal species, or as a brave huntsman or fisherman. Opinion polls seem to prove that his approach is successful. With approval rates between 75 and 83 percent, Putin is considered to be the most popular politician in Russia. However, another part of the truth is that the Kremlin — since Putin came to power in 2000 — has been marginalizing free and critical media, and putting Russian opposition under pressure, thereby nipping any real alternative in the bud.

Putin didn't show much respect for those people who officially announced his candidacy on December 26. He didn't show up for his own nomination. Even so, he submitted his records to the central election commission in person — as an independent candidate.

2. Purportedly, Putin's last term in office

For Putin, it would be the fourth term in office as president. Between 2000 and 2008 he served two terms of four years each. Since then, he has never relinquished power in Russia, although he held office as Prime Minister temporarily. In the wake of a constitutional amendment, he has been governing on a six-year term since 2012. He is now Russia's longest serving leader since Josef Stalin. At the end of his fourth term in 2024, Putin will have governed the country for 24 years. According to the Russian constitution, the president can only serve for two consecutive terms in office. Afterwards, he is not allowed to run again, unless this constitutional regulation is modified in time.

There are a number of options for Putin if he intends to rule the country even after his next term. He could nominate another stand-in (like Dmitry Medvedev, who served as president from 2008 to 2012), he could get rid of the office term restriction in the constitution, or he could create for himself a new "lifetime" post, which would allow him to remain detached from day-to-day politics and hold on to strategic power regardless.

3. Putin's main rival: Navalny

Thus far, there's only one significant Russian opposition politician, who began his campaign a year ago and has been actively pursuing it since. Alexei Navalny, who made a name for himself as an anti-corruption activist, is now considered to be the country's harshest critic of the Putin system. His exposure of, for example, Prime Minister Medvedev's wealth inspired thousands of mostly young people to take to the streets in protest earlier this year.

Alexei Navalny in Moscow
Banned from running in the 2018 election: Kremlin critic Alexei NavalnyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/E. Feldman

Apart from the odd hiatus, brought about by imprisonment, and in defiance of regulatory obstructions, Navalny has been campaigning in a typical European style. He set up campaign committees and met potential voters in a large number of Russian provincial towns. In the end, it was all in vain: Russia's central election commission banned Navalny from running in the 2018 election because of an earlier criminal conviction. Navalny's supporters contend that conviction was politically motivated, and it was categorized as "arbitrary" by the European Court of Human Rights.

4. New faces, and a symbolic date

If the outcome of the election is already certain, then how does the Kremlin persuade its electorate to act in its interest and cast their ballots on election day? The traditional candidates of the tame Communist party and the populist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) have nothing new to offer — they alone will hardly be able to mobilize Russian voters.

So fresh faces are needed, especially female ones. TV anchor and businesswoman Ksenia Sobchak, former porn actress Elena Berkova and prominent journalist Katya Gordon have all joined the presidential race. Among them, it's Sobchak, the daughter of the former mayor of St. Petersburg, who is best known. Anatoly Sobchak, now deceased, was one of the first Russian democrats after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His deputy was Vladimir Putin. So the sitting president knows Ksenia Sobchak very well.

Ksenia Sobchak
Ksenia Sobchak insists she is not colluding with the KremlinImage: picture-alliance/dpa/TASS/V. Matytsin

Sobchak is seeking to mobilize those voters who would have stayed at home otherwise, especially because Navalny is banned from running. Sobchak is said to be close to the Russian opposition. There is, however, an awkwardness to many aspects of her campaign, creating the impression that she was only admitted by the Kremlin in order to boost voter turnout.

The election date may ring a bell with Russian voters as well: March 18 is the date on which, four years ago, the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea was officially annexed by Russia.

5. Boycott as a strategy

And where does that leave Navalny? The opposition politician has called for a boycott of the election. The first demonstrations of protest are to take place in a number of Russian cities on January 28. Navalny wants to hit the Achilles heel of the otherwise simple Kremlin scheme: voter turnout. It is estimated that some 50 percent of eligible voters will cast their ballots on March 18. Obviously, this is not enough for the Kremlin if it strives for a triumphant victory that will be uncontestable. Reportedly, Putin's administration has already provided regional authorities with a "70 times 70" goal: 70 percent of the voters in the Russian provinces must be mobilized to turn up at the ballot boxes, and Putin is to receive 70 percent of the vote. If this turns out to be true, his election victory would have the desired sparkle.